Birth of a Nation

Despite long odds Republic of South Sudan celebrates a new beginning

(London Free Press — July 9, 2011)

GLEN PEARSON

“It’s the moment my people and I have been waiting for and it’s finally here. We are free to determine our own destiny, to make our own way in the world of nations.”

These words of Aben Kuol, a Sudanese woman living in London, effectively summarize the hopes of all southern Sudanese on this remarkable day of independence for the new Republic of South Sudan. She travelled to Africa this week to share in the celebrations.

This was a moment very few international observers believed would arrive. Their doubts were understandable. A civil war killed 2.5 million people and displaced five million. Despite the long odds, South Sudan today celebrates its nationhood – the newest country in the world.

Shortly there will be the formalizing of relationships between South Sudan and other nations in the world, including Canada. It will quickly be accepted as the newest member state of the United Nations.

Depending on whom you ask, the new nation is either a phoenix rising from the ashes or Icarus crashing for flying to close to the sun. Yet during the preliminaries for the run-up to independence, it became clear the odds were increasingly gaining for the south’s democratic ability to run its own state.

In historical terms, this path to nationhood has been brief, at least diplomatically. Peace talks between north and south culminated in a comprehensive peace agreement in 2005, bringing to a fragile end the civil war that had plagued the nation for nearly 20 years.

It has only been six years since the celebration of that signing, but the progress has proved remarkable, Few gave it any chance. In the intervening years, the south has held national elections and completed a referendum on independence that Western observers applauded for its accountability and participation rate (almost 99% of those eligible voted for separation).

Now it has successfully evolved to today’s day of independence.

The strain on both sides since the referendum has been obvious, as each seeks to maintain its holdings while cultivating stronger relationships of legitimacy with other nations. But, overall, the peace has held while the world continues to hold its breath as to the final outcome.

Plans were placed in jeopardy recently by the clash in the Abyei region between northern and southern forces and various tribal and militia groups. It’s a complex affair involving border disputes, oil revenues, tribal migration rights, and international negotiations. While the government of Sudan (the north) has forcibly placed itself within the region around Abyei, southern leaders, led by Sudanese Vice-President Salva Kiir (and now president of South Sudan), have responded with enough restraint to keep the peace process from falling off the rails.

Despite the familiar pessimism, peace has held and today ushers in a new era, not only for Sudan and the region, but for all of Africa.

Veteran non-governmental organizations and diplomatic personnel have come to understand the fleeting nature of well-intended peace efforts. But this one is different specifically because the world is watching and actively involved in the overall effort.

While Sudan’s President Omar Bashir continues to mix it up, he is most aware of the benefits that will accrue if ultimate peace is obtained.

His hold on power is tenuous, especially in light of what’s occurring in friendly nations in the Arab Spring. He’s also aware that being indicted by the International Criminal Court for war crimes carries serious consequences for his future.

His neighbours are pressing him for peace and the world community is willing to resource it. He would be a fool to take the conflict any further.

Few people in London realize the supportive role local citizens have played in this winding path to peace and prosperity. London’s initial efforts began back in 1998 and involved plans to tackle the well-documented practice of chattel slavery.

In 1999, a team of Londoners, accompanied by The London Free Press and CBC television, fleshed out the horrors of slavery for the world to see and participated significantly in the international effort to eradicate its practice from Sudan.

Those interventions eventually proved successful, but the problem remained about how to undertake the support of the 10,000 slaves who had been freed in the process.

My wife Jane Roy and I opted to start Canadian Aid for South Sudan (CASS) in an organized effort to assist returning slaves, with a focus on education, support for exiles, the provision of clean water and resourcing health clinics, while maintaining efforts to abolish slavery.

Canadians rose to the challenge. With the signing of peace in 2005, the possibility emerged of taking teams of London and area residents to some of the most remote regions of south Sudan to assist in managing the various programs. Those teams proved remarkably effective and persistent.

Examples include Lucy Ogletree from Sparta who, assisted by Todd Russell from Labrador, established arts camps for kids. Londoner David Tennant and his co-workers have been working to establish better farming practices in the deep southern regions.

Krista Pawley from Toronto developed a photographic expose on the plight of Sudanese women. Arthur Holbrook and Hilary Pryor from Victoria, B.C. journeyed with us to film a documentary on the emergence of south Sudan from years of civil war.

Indeed, Rotary and other service clubs, university advocacy groups, churches, mosques and individual Londoners have become so involved that the effect on South Sudan’s journey has been profound. Those efforts will continue for years to come.

The south has already voted for freedom in front of the entire world, in a process monitored by the international community. It is a legitimacy that cannot be undone without destroying the entire nation of Sudan itself and perhaps inflaming the entire region.

The south will be free, just as Aben Kuol had prayed, and today it will introduce itself as a member state of the world of nations. Count on it.

Let’s not despair, but hold the line on hope and a successful outcome. The African century is emerging.

Glen Pearson is the co-founder of Canadian Aid for South Sudan and co-director of the London Food Bank.

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